Forgetting Franco: The Creation of a New Spanish Identity

On October 1st, 2017, Catalonia, the northeastern-most autonomous community of Spain, voted for independence. The vote was riddled with violence and controversy, as the referendum was not legally recognized, and was disputed by the Spanish government. Across Catalonian communities, including the city of Barcelona, voters, protesters, and police came out in great numbers. Many citizens displayed their sentiments by hanging symbolic flags from their balconies, lighting the city ablaze in color. Similarly, halfway across the country in the capital city of Madrid, the same phenomenon was also appearing. Spain has a troubled history with their flag. A remnant of the Franco regime, the flag was never redefined after the transition to democracy. The Catalonian referendum ignited a renewed and unprecedented return of Spanish nationalism: a formerly right-wing sentiment. Given Spain’s history with Franco symbols, it is apparent that the flag has been reborn with a new identity, one dependent on, and contrasting, the rise of Catalonian Nationalism.


It is called the “Red Effect” when Spaniards display the official Spanish flag in full force. Since the fall of Franco, it has only appeared following soccer victories such as the 2010 World Cup win. Across Spain, the Spanish flag was waved and displayed from balconies to celebrate the great victory. In other countries, flag displays are nothing to note, perhaps even commonplace, yet Spain has a uniquely controversial relationship with its flag. The flag is colloquially referred to as “La Rojigualda,” and flies with two red stripes on either side of a wider yellow stripe, which hosts the Spanish coat of arms on the left side.

Every day the flag is flown alongside European Union flags on government buildings and hotels. However, it is very rare to see the flag in non-official capacities, save for following soccer victories. This is due to the sordid history of La Rojigualda, as a former symbol of Spain’s former dictator, Francisco Franco. As explained by Marian Ahumada Ruiz, a professor of constitutional law for the Autonomous University of Madrid, the Spanish flag “has historically proved a problem because of the way it was appropriated and politicized during the Spanish Civil War and the subsequent dictatorship of Francisco Franco.” Indeed, during the days of the Franco regime, the flag was displayed across the country as a symbol of the unity that Franco campaigned for. The flag was only slightly different then, displaying the slogan “One, Great, Free” over the eagle of St. John and the yoke and arrow— all symbols of Franco’s supporters.

The Spanish Flag

However, the basic stripes and coat of arms were the same. Standing as a symbol of the oppressive and violent regimes of Francisco Franco, supporters of the flag have been labeled as right-wing radicals in the years since the democratic transition. This conflict goes beyond the flag, as all forms of Spanish nationalism have been associated with Franco. When the Franco regime rose to power after a bloody civil war, it enforced a specific Spanish identity. Regional languages, flags, and customs were prohibited as a single, unified Catholic-Spanish identity was promoted. Nationalism was enforced by the military and all autonomous regions of Spain were stripped of their historic autonomy and regional cultures and were forcefully united under Franco. Thus, nationalistic sentiments became irrevocably intertwined with the Franco regime— one that many were eager to put in the past.

Spain’s transition into democracy is unlike most regime changes. Following the death of Francisco Franco 1975, Spain was free to begin the democratic process, starting with the question of how to leave Franco’s era behind and move into the 20th century where they were already behind by European standards. The political parties at the time decided to focus all Spanish attention and resources on building the Spanish economy and rejoining the contemporary world. Thus, matters of the past were purposely forgotten. Spain did not have the time or resources to address the many Spaniards who had supported and committed violence at the word of Franco. Neither did those in power want to drag their freshly liberated country through the still fresh horrors of the civil war. The Pact of Forgetting allowed the country to move forward, granting amnesty to those who participated in Franco’s regime, and leaving all Spanish collective memories in the past. Thus, there were no public channels for commemoration: the civil war is not recognized each year, and the many remnants of former nationalistic elements have been wiped clean, such as the national anthem. (The anthem was once sung in Castilian Spanish, a propaganda piece to force Basques and Catalonians to speak Castilian instead of their own regional languages, which Franco banned.) Instead of lingering in the past, Spaniards dove into their new era of modernity. As explained by William Chislett, “over the last 40 years Spain has enjoyed an unprecedented period of prosperity and peaceful co-existence, even taking into account the prolonged recession that ended in 2014. The changes have been profound; the country propelled its political, economic and social modernization into a much shorter period than any other European country.” In many ways, Spain left its past behind and created a relatively prosperous country that allows for the freedoms of its citizens. Furthermore, Spain has gone further than many other countries in embracing the times we are now living in. It was a leader of the gay rights movement, passing a very liberal law in 2005 allowing for gay marriage. Spain is also a leader in women’s equality with women making up 40% of parliament. Both are impressive milestones, considering Spain was once a deeply Catholic country where being homosexual was illegal and women could not sign legal documents.  In many ways, Spain is recognizable from what it once was. Yet, in October, the familiar red and gold stripes burned brightly across Spain, reminding the county and the world of the man who Spain has so quickly and passionately left behind.  

The Red Effect of 2017

In the decades since the fall of Franco, the Spanish flag is primarily used in official capacities. With few exceptions, the Spanish flag has been treated like all memories of the Franco era: erased from the Spanish identity. However, with the potential secession of Catalonia from Spain, there is currently an unprecedented resurgence of the flag. Apartment buildings and protesters in the streets are draped in the red and yellow stripes, promoting Spanish unity in a way that hasn’t been since Franco’s political rallies. Madrid, in particular, was ablaze with the “La Rojigualda,” as nearly every building displayed their opinion of the Catalonian movement. Spaniards also changed their profile pictures to the image of the flag— the modern day political expression. This rise in nationalism is in tandem with rising Catalonian Nationalism. Barcelona, the largest city in Catalonia, is similarly draped in flags -although here the ‘Estelada’ flag is flying high.

The Catalonian Independence flag, the ‘Senyera Estelada,’ or the Estelada for short, is the official Catalonian flag’s (the Senyera) yellow and red stripes, with an additional superimposed blue triangle with a white star on the left side.

The Senyera

This flag, unlike the Senyera flag, is in favor of separation from Spain and is waved and hung by Catalonian separatists. The flag is currently very visible in Catalonia and Barcelona in particular. The Senyera, on the other hand, can be interpreted a number of ways. Some see the Senyera, the traditional flag of the region, as being pro-Catalonia in Spain, or simply as pro-Catalonia, regardless of the outcome of the independence movement. However, the Estelada is the more visible independence symbol. Indeed, the more vocal the Catalonian Secessionist Movement has become, the pro-unity crowd has become more prominent as well. This includes both counter-protesters and the rise in popularity of the Spanish flag.

Oppositional Identity Creation

It is common for nationalist movements to feed off one another. It was the rise of Franco and subsequent oppression of the Catalonian people that fostered today’s secessionist movement. Today, the Catalonian movement is creating a new form of Spanish nationalism.  Joan Culla, a Catalan historian, stated, “Nationalist movements need to feed off each other. It’s both unfortunate and normal that the escalation of Catalan nationalism, particularly in recent days, will fuel a Spanish nationalism.” Many consider this rise of the counter-protesters an attempt to drown out the original party’s voices. However, it is more nuanced than that. Identities created in opposition to another identity are simpler to establish. This is common in former colonies when they gain independence. Post-colonial identity creation, as exposed by Andrew Fallone, is the creation of an identity that it purely in opposition to that of the former sovereigns. This identity creation is formed as a means of distinguishing themselves from the colonizers. While Spain and Catalonia are not in this predicament of colonizer and colonized (as related to this instance), the same identity crisis is unfolding amidst Catalonia’s bid for independence. The Catalonian Secessionist Movement’s highly visible campaign is forcing the pro-unity opposition to also become highly visible. The pro-unity crowd is feeling the same pressure that former colonies do, in the need to distinguish themselves and make themselves visible, as well as finding an identity that the country can rally behind. After Franco, being Spanish was difficult for people to accept, as they saw ‘Spanish’ as Franco perpetuated it. Thus, after his fall, the Spaniards sidestepped their confused identity— even going so far as to not refer to Spain as Spain, but as ‘the country’ instead: a social aspect of the Pact of Forgetting. This collective amnesia has left the question of what it means to be Spanish unanswered for decades. The Catalonian situation is a vehicle for Spain to answer this question. Spaniards are now able to find a Spanish identity in the flag and in pro-unity sentiments.


An easy alternative explanation for the rising popularity of the La Rojigualda is that Spain is reverting to its conservative past. Nationalist sentiments are often associated with the far right, as seen in movements in America, Germany, Britain, and France. Often, shows of nationalism are associated with the national flag: a symbol of the nation. However, Spain is uniquely divergent from this form of flag waving. Unlike other countries where national flags are growing in visibility, Spain has no far-right party. While the leading party, the Popular Party (PP), was created by former Francoist officials, it is conservative with support from the right wing: it is not a right-wing party itself.


The rise in Spanish Nationalism cannot be simplified as ideas of the far right, as it can be in other countries at the moment. Instead, Spanish nationalism emanates from a larger sentiment. Spaniards are finally creating their own identify, albeit in opposition to the Catalonian secessionist identity. With this, the world can expect to see changes in how Spain reconnects with its forgotten past. Likely changes may be as small as reincorporating lyrics into the national anthem. However, larger impacts may come as well, like the potential disbanding of ETA. Further strengthening of Spain as a whole maybe be seen in other political and cultural situations as well. Only time will tell what may come out of the newfound “Spainishness.”